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Pesticides Are Killing Greece’s Bees: Honey Industry Suffers Amid Broader Economic Turmoil

Studies confirm that pesticides disorient the bees and make it difficult for them to navigate, forage for pollen and reproduce in the hives.

Dr. Sofia Gounari and Maryam Henein (director of Vanishing of the Bees) inspect hives at Demokritos The National Centre for Scientific Research in Athens. (Photo: Jan Wellmann)

The hot topic across global financial markets at the moment is Greece. People there are experiencing monetary woes, but it seems like their honeybees aren’t doing too well either. Systemic pesticides are increasingly causing bee losses, and many would argue that the country now suffers from colony collapse disorder as well.

The air smells of smoke and lemons, and the cicadas chirp steadily as I come upon 16 beehives clustered together in a dry field. What I’ve just discovered is mere steps away from Demokritos, the National Centre for Scientific Research in Athens, the largest multidisciplinary research institute in Greece. Every so often, pagoda, pine and olive trees sway gently in the breeze, but overall the climate in Attica, the historic region that encompasses the capital, is hot and arid.

The scent in the air is coming from lemon balm leaves, which associate researcher and apiculturist, Dr. Sofia Gounari, has placed in her smoker to calm the bees. It’s an attractive aroma to the virgin sisters of toil because it’s similar to the secretions they give off when communicating with one another, she explains. No wonder lemon balm’s official name is Melissa officinalis; Melissa is Greek for “honeybee.”

“In the past, beekeepers added lemon juice in melted wax to attract swarms,” says the 52-year-old. Working at the Institute of Mediterranean Forest Ecosystems, Gounari has agreed to rendezvous with me as I explore the state of bees and beekeeping in Greece. It’s the day of Greece’s ultimately pointless referendum, and Gounari remarks that it’s actually good to be in the bee yard today, thinking of nature rather than the country’s future and the terms of Greece’s EU bailout deal.

When I ask her if we can look at the bees, she expresses concern about my attire: a casual combination of shorts and a tank top. But I assure her that I will be fine with only a veil and actually welcome a sting or two as I regard the venom as medicinal. I just don’t like getting stung in the face since my face swells up beyond recognition. With the help of a hive tool, she pries a few frames out so we can observe the capped brood and honey flow. She gestures for me to try some honey and before I gently poke my finger in the sticky wax, I silently thank the bees.

Unfortunately Gounari, who has been beekeeping for three decades, didn’t harvest much honey this year due to bee losses.

“We’ve had a lot of problems with pesticides these last two years in all of Attica, mostly in the south,” says Gounari, who also transported another 10 beehives on fir trees in Menalo Mountain in Central Peloponnesus. Incidentally, this year’s crop from Menalo, near Tripoli, was the worst in many years, due to the poor weather in the mountains.

“Because of systemic pesticides?” I ask. She nods. The pesticides are just one of the challenges troubling beekeepers in Greece, who are struggling to carry on the country’s ancient legacy of apiculture in the face of modern toxins.

Maryam Henein samples Dr. Sofia Gounari's honey.Maryam Henein samples Dr. Sofia Gounari’s honey. (Photo: Jan Wellmann)

Honey for the Gods: The Ancient History of Beekeeping in Greece

Apiculture in Greece dates back to antiquity and is part of the country’s legacy.

Legend has it that the Greek god of apiculture, Aristaeus, was the son of Apollo and the huntress Cyrene. According to Greek mythology, Aristaeus was born in the palaces of Libya, North Africa, where nurses dropped nectar and ambrosia on his lips, turning him into an immortal. Nymphs taught him useful arts and mysteries like how to curdle milk for cheese and tame the Goddess’ bees to stay in hives.

In the ancient city of Knossos a sign reads: Pasi Theis Meli – “Honey Is Offered to All Gods.” Honeybees were so revered that they were even etched on Greek coins.

In 322 BC, Aristotle, the Greek philosopher and scientist, was the first person recorded as having studied bees, and it is said that Pythagoras and his followers used honey as their main source of food. Meanwhile melikraton – a thick mixture of milk and honey that’s been mentioned in the Odyssey – was viewed as sacred and imbibed on special occasions. The carved stone that channeled the vapors of the Oracle of Delphia was dome-shaped like a beehive, and legend even asserts that the second temple at Delphi was constructed entirely by bees.

Contemporary beekeepers in Greece are keeping alive the country’s reverence for honey and hives. There are a total of 1.5 million beehives in all of Greece. In fact, the country ranks second in the world (after Hungary) when it comes to apicultural density: about 11.1 beehives per km. Meanwhile, golden liquid flows in abundance in this country, free of genetic modification and gleaned from vast, uncultivated lands. All Greek honey is, by default, GMO-free, given that genetically modified crops are prohibited from being grown in the country.

And, I’d venture to say that every Greek home has honey. Greeks consume the largest amount of honey per person in all of Europe – 1.620 kg per year. The country produces about 15,000 to 16,000 tons of honey annually, making it the second-largest honey producer in Europe, after Spain.

“Honey is part of the Mediterranean diet,” said Katerina Karatasou of the Federation of Greek Beekeepers’ Associations. “It’s a superfood with many advantages for health.”

In Greece, more than 60 percent of the honey comes from pine and fir (pefko and elato), and what is fascinating here is that an insect called Marchinalia hellenica feeds on the trees by sucking the sap, and then the excess sugary substances that are produced are then collected by bees (honeydew honey). Once processed by the bees, it is almost indistinguishable from other honey, apart from the ratio of different sugars, plus it has a stronger taste and darker color.

Another 10 percent of the country’s honey comes from thyme, which is rich in copper and boron and considered to have tonic and antiseptic properties, wonderful for the prevention and fighting of infections from peptic and respiratory diseases. The rest comes from chestnut, cotton, heather, oranges and a great variety of wild herbs and flowers. The aroma, the taste, and the viscosity of Greek honey are superb.

Abandoned hives lay in the grass near an ancient trail that connected the port of ancient Kirra with the Oracle of Delphi.Abandoned hives lay in the grass near an ancient trail that connected the port of ancient Kirra with the Oracle of Delphi. (Photo: Jan Wellmann)

An Unexpected Effect of the Athens Olympics: Bee Deaths

Back in 2004, as Athens prepared to host the summer Olympics, organizers decided to go all out by importing Canary palm trees from North Africa for decoration and shade. Unfortunately, the red palm weevil – an insect that slowly munches on the palm until it kills its host – hitched a ride to Greece as well. Soon after that a horticulturalist spotted the first unfamiliar weevil in a palm tree all the way in Hersonissos, Crete. By 2006, the red palm weevil had infested palm trees across Greece, from Crete to Rhodes to Attica and beyond.

As a result many hotels and municipalities went mad and started spraying chemicals at will, including neonics, Gounari said.

Eventually all the trees died, including many of the indigenous palm trees like the endangered Cretan Palm. But it got worse: The neonicotinoids also caused huge bee losses, especially to honey producers in the region of Attica. The die-off cost local beekeepers losses of around 50 percent.

“I lost many beehives from the spraying of palm trees with neonicotinoids in the area around the institute,” Gounari said. “Now that all the trees are dead, there’s some relief from the toxins directly in the city.”

Greece Says “Oxi” to a Ban on Neonics

It’s 2012, and based on an assessment by the European Food Safety Authority, the European Commission decides to temporarily restrict the use of three neonicotinoids – clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam, which are considered harmful to bee health. At the time, 15 member states – including France and Germany – vote in favor of the restrictions, four abstain and eight vote against the ban, including the UK, Italy, Hungary and Greece.

“The Greek vote was a major disappointment to us and we fail to understand it,” stated the Federation of Greek Beekeepers’ Associations, which is made up of about 65 beekeeping associations.

According to Andreas Thrasivoulou, a professor of beekeeping at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, the Ministry of the Environment was informed of the damage due to the use of the harmful pesticides by both professional and scientific organizations, as well as ordinary beekeepers and political parties.

“The ministry was fully aware of the problem,” says Thrasivoulou. “However, instead of listening to us, they preferred to listen to the companies that produce the pesticides.”

Undoubtedly, the decision had to do with dollar bills and keeping the pharmaceutical companies happy, says Gounari. Meanwhile, honeybees and human beings are defenseless victims of the profiteering of large agricultural companies.

“Not banning the pesticides does not help agriculture. It does not help biodiversity, it does not help humans and insects. No one benefits from bees dying,” says Elena Danali of Greenpeace Greece.

To defend their position, sources from the Ministry of Agricultural Development maintained that the European Food Safety Authority report did not contain sufficient data and that a mass extinction of bees, due to the use of the specific systemic pesticides, had not been registered in Greece.

As far as data: Based on the results of more than 1,000 international studies, scientists with the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides have concluded that neonics are a major factor in bee mortality. The pesticides disorient the bees, making it more difficult for these flying insects to navigate, forage for pollen and reproduce in the hives.

In the end, a ban was instated for the treatment of seeds, soil (granules), and foliar applications for a period of two years on corn, cotton, sunflower and rapeseed, but not including individual use in gardens and orchards, e.g. oranges. It expired in December of 2014. Ironically, manufacturers Bayer and Syngenta are now suing the European Commission and asking for reimbursement for lost profits. (Because apparently a gazillion dollars just isn’t enough.)

“We are also trying to defend our reputation, which was significantly harmed, particularly considering the significant investments we have made over a number of years in bee health and sustainable agriculture in general,” added a Bayer company spokesman, defending the use of legal action for a temporary measure that has since expired.

Still, many groups are hoping to renew the ban, this time attempting to restrict all six systemic pesticides rather than the aforementioned three.

Unemployed Youth Turn to Beekeeping

Greece has an estimated 25,000 beekeepers; about 1,500 of them make their living solely from the trade while about 85 percent use it to supplement their income. Meanwhile, about 7,000 beekeepers own more than 150 hives.

According to Gounari, there’s also been a wave of young adults taking up the profession, as of late.

“That’s great,” I respond with enthusiasm.

“No, it’s not great,” she interjects. “We have an economic crisis, and people think they can earn money easily because they’ve seen beekeepers go on TV, saying that you can collect 30 to 50 kilos of honey and sell it for 10 to 15 euros per kilo. Beekeeping is not easy and it’s not for everyone. Money is not a reason to become a beekeeper.”

Currently, the unemployment rate for Greek youth hovers around 53 percent, so naturally, some are seeking solutions in more creative ways, said Karatasou of the Federation of Greek Beekeepers’ Associations. She tells wannabe beekeepers that they can’t be allergic, they can’t be afraid, and most importantly, they can’t expect to make any money … at least not for the first three years in the business.

Beekeeping is indeed not easy. In Greece, beekeepers have to move their hives four to six times a year following the nectar or honeydew flow and the harvests are poor: 12-15 kilos on average, nothing near the 30-40 kilos we hear in other European countries.

Are Bee Deaths the Beekeepers’ Fault?

Systemic pesticides, especially Gaucho (imidacloprid), have been used in Greece mainly on cotton, sunflower and oranges for the past five or six years. While varroa destructor, a parasitic mite that attacks honey bees, is certainly an issue, many contend that nicotine-based pesticides are the main problem, compromising the bees’ immune system so that they cannot fend for themselves. (Incidentally while Greece’s economy is anchored in tourism and shipping, its main exports are fish and cotton).

“We never had losses of more than seven to 10 percent, which is considered acceptable. But now with the advent of neonics, the losses have increased considerably, and they are high in specific periods of the year, not only just after winter,” explains biologist and researcher Dr. Fani Hatjina of the Division of Apiculture, of the Hellenic Agricultural Organization DEMETER. Hatjina has been studying the effect of pesticides and bee losses since 2007. Together with other researchers, she has concluded that imidacloprid in sub-lethal doses has a significant detrimental effect in different aspects of bees’ physiology, behavior and health (e.g. in orientation, respiration, cardiac rhythm, food glands’ size, thermoregulation, immune system and hygienic behavior).

Since the country has lost bees due to neonics, I asked whether beekeepers have witnessed colony collapse disorder (CCD).

“No, we don’t have CCD, we have bad beekeepers,” insists Gounari. While she agrees that neonics are slowly killing bees, she believes that the main issue is overworking the bees and abusing hives by treating them as a commodity.

Another beekeeper I spoke to claims Greece doesn’t have colony collapse disorder because the country is still void of genetically modified foods.

This idea that beekeepers – rather than colony collapse disorder – are to blame for the rising losses in the bee population was also prevalent in France, circa 1995, and the United States, circa 2006. When bees in those countries first started dying en masse, the first culprit was the beekeeper.

Colony Collapse Disorder

Many beekeepers and scientists don’t agree with Gounari about the cause of bee deaths in Greece.

“It’s easy to assume that it’s bad beekeepers, but there are signs of CCD. No doubt about that,” says John Phipps, editor of The Beekeepers Quarterly. In 2010, Phipps went from 40 to 28 hives and has witnessed very unusual bee behavior as well as “typical signs of CCD,” like abandoned hives, with only a small batch of brood left behind and sometimes a queen.

Hatjina has also gotten increased reports of colonies disappearing and the life spans of queen bees dropping to as low as two weeks, instead of two to three years, and these events are increasing year after year. However due to being short-staffed, she is unable to keep tabs on the losses. Her studies have also shown that when bees come into contact with neonics, they are more vulnerable to diseases such as Nosema and AFB.

One significant difference is that the failing hives in Greece can recover more easily than those in the United States because they can be easily moved to areas without poisons. Keep in mind that only 29 percent of Greece land is farmed. Greece doesn’t have huge monocultures, so wild flora around the contaminated cultivations acts as a sort of ‘saver’ for the bees; therefore, sometimes the adverse effects are diluted. Hatjina’s new research also shows that the colonies are trying to detoxify themselves. Their success depends of the dose of the neonicotinoid used.

With all this said, beekeepers can do a better job of keeping bees. While an increasing number of young and old beekeepers use nontoxic oxalic acids and essential oils against miticides, many others still use toxins such as pyrethroids, even though varroa mites have grown resistant to it. They are advised to follow proper instructions and only treat during brood-less periods, but still even limited use of the toxins filter into the wax and honey. Meanwhile, Phipps has noticed that many Greek beekeepers buy Chinese wax, because it’s cheap.

Raising Consciousness on the Importance of Bees

During the last 10 years, official beekeeping seminars have proved very helpful in passing new knowledge and methodology to Greek beekeepers, says Hatjina.

Meanwhile, organizations like the Federation of Greek Beekeepers’ Associations, the Division of Apiculture in Chalkidiki, and Greenpeace Greece are also actively attempting to link farmers with beekeepers and teach them about the detrimental effects of neonics and the importance of honeybees. But unfortunately, many are not so sympathetic to the cause. They don’t realize the extent of the damage because the effects are sub-lethal.

“Unfortunately not all of them can hear that bees are the solution and not the problem,” says Delani. “Some farmers, the more conventional ones, don’t like bees or don’t understand their vital role in pollination. … Of course, there are also organic and progressive farmers that are making positive contributions.”

Greenpeace Greece also has a current campaign that aims to educate people about the importance of bees and the dangerous repercussions of systemic pesticides.

So it’s not just about farmers and beekeepers.

“I think that people in Greece are aware that the honeybee is a central pillar of the ecosystem,” says Karatasou.

It seems that Greek people have a place in the colony collapse disorder puzzle, too. Will the country befriend the bee? We’ll have to wait and see.

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